When will New Jersey reverse its sprawling ways?

by Stephen Smith

New Jersey has always been an odd state – it’s the most densely populated of the fifty, and yet it lies just outside of the core of both of its metro areas (Philadelphia and New York). North Jersey does have a formidable number of mid-sized cities, but the biggest – Newark – is a posterchild for urban neglect, and New Jersey’s urban areas play a tepid second fiddle to their much larger counterparts across the Delaware and the Hudson. New Jersey’s appeal lies undeniably in its suburbs, which are connected by a network of government-built roads and enabled by anti-density development rules.

Despite New Jersey’s predilection for sprawl, the New York Times reports that the state may literally be running out of horizontal space. A Rutgers study claims that around the middle of the 21st century New Jersey will become the first state to develop all its unprotected land development trends remain unchanged.

The NYT article then claims that denser redevelopment is on the rise and cites a few of anecdotes as evidence, but frankly I’m not convinced that the state is very reform-minded when it comes to its density-limiting regulations. Even among the examples given by the Times we see the limits of reform: a 217-unit luxury rental apartment building near the Morristown NJ Transit station – an area that was supposedly rezoned as a “Transit Village Core” a decade ago – was only allowed to go forward after the developer agreed to build 722 new parking spaces.

On a more general level, New Jersey’s experiment with zoning reform in the ’70s and ’80s has been severely disappointing in terms of liberalization. Researcher James Mitchell used decisions handed down around the same time by both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Supreme Courts to compare the effects on housing in the Philadelphia suburbs, which are split between the two states. Pennsylvania’s courts essentially forced municipalities to upzone parts of their towns and allow for attached townhouses and apartment buildings, whereas New Jersey’s courts’ famous Mount Laurel decisions created a precedent that relied heavily on inclusionary zoning, which offers zoning bonuses and financial incentives in exchange for a certain proportion of the units being designated as “affordable housing” – i.e., sold or rented below cost. Mitchell found that Pennsylvania’s approach was more effective at promoting development of townhouses and apartment buildings, without relying on any of the bonuses, subsidies, or developer mandates of the New Jersey model.

Recent events in the state have not been kind to the cause of urbanism and density, either. While I’m not as sold on the necessity of the expensive and ill-conceived ARC project to build another commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson, the bigger crime is that Governor Chris Christie is scraping the project because he wants to use the $2.7 billion to make good on his pledge not to raise the state gas tax (already one of the lowest in the country) – a clear electoral giveaway to suburban constituents who want the whole state to subsidize their driving. It demonstrates that New Jersey’s legacy of interstates and highways is not easily left behind, despite the vague nationwide trend towards cities.

So, could a lack of undeveloped land actually force New Jersey to overcome decades of inertia and reverse its sprawling ways? California has survived with similarly stringent land use rules despite being a poorer state, and New Jersey has significant geographic and economic assets to sustain itself despite a rise in housing costs. New Jersey probably has a ways to go before sprawl’s negatives overwhelm the state’s positives, so the real question is, will it wisen up before it gets to that point, or will it have to hit rock bottom before it allows itself to densify?

  • Benjamin Hemric


    Thanks for the kind words about my post re NYU 2031 (the official name of NYU’s plan).

    Although this is not really a comment about your post above, I thought you might nevertheless enjoy reading my just expressed doubts about the Access to the Regional Core project, which I just posted on a libertarian-oriented website (since you too seem to have doubts about it and appear from other posts to be an admirer of Jane Jacobs too).

    Here’s the link:


    If the link doesn’t work, it’s a pro-ARC post, entitled, “Who’s to Blame,” posted today, 10/7/10, by Matthew Schmitz on “the League of Ordinary Gentlemen” (a strange name that I don’t know anything about) website. My post is from 10:15 p.m. today.


    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, October 7, 2010, 11:40 p.m.

  • Stephen Smith

    Thanks for the link! I agree that there’s too much focus on shuttling people into Manhattan and not enough focus (re)building North Jersey. I’ve updated the article to mention the fact that New Jersey already has one of the lowest gas taxes in the country, and in the next few days I hope to write a longer article about the ARC project and suburban commuter rail more generally.

  • Anonymous

    Great article.

    I remember being told by someone that their town had voted our their city council in the NJ ‘burbs b/c the council was ready to approve apartments right by the train station. The reason for opposition? The potential color of the people who might live there (despite this being a transit-oriented development for folks going into Manahattan, which would probably attract people with some money). Yet they still want the taxpayer to pay for ARC (which I deel is sorely needed – trains in our greatest metro shouldn’t be literally “stuck in traffic”).

    The same reason btw was given for opposing basement rentals (accessory units) in single-family areas.

    These suburban attitudes need to be confronted if urbanism is to be allowed. Perhaps giving the power of zoning tansit-oriented areas to a regional commission?

  • Anonymous


    good post. You might be interested in our take on the relationship between the ARC tunnel and NJ’s land-use patterns: http://njfuture.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/arc-tunnel-is-dead/


  • shocked

    “California has survived with similarly stringent land use rules despite being a poorer state”

    If the bar for “success” is “survival”, you’re bar is far, far too low. California is/was a very wealthy state and I’m a bit shocked that someone would be so purposefully brush aside the numerous issues it’s stringent land use rules have caused.

  • Stephen Smith

    I didn’t mean to imply that California’s land use rules are reasonable or a good thing – just that they’ve lived with them for quite a while and their state’s decline doesn’t seem to have forced people to reconsider them, so New Jersey could go down the same path. Not that they should, but this post is about what New Jersey will actually do, not what it should do.

  • http://www.newportrentalsnj.com New Jersey Apt


    New Jersey has always been an odd state and it’s really true that it is the most densely populated.


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